Who to watch in Saturday’s Elite 8
ANAHEIM, Calif. — San Diego State’s semi-authentic Aztec might have been the boldest character at the NCAA West Regional in Anaheim this week, but without him, there’s a few key players left. Wisconsin’s locker room is full of sharp shooters and one goofy – yet graceful – big man, while Arizona boasts one of the biggest stars still left in the NCAA tournament.
Here’s who to watch in Saturday’s Elite Eight game between No. 1 Arizona and No. 2 Wisconsin.
During Pac-12 basketball media day in San Francisco last fall, each coach was asked which freshman had the potential to make the biggest impact. Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wouldn’t even let the reporter finish when Aaron Gordon’s name came up just saying, "That one, that one!"
Well-spoken and brought up with a basketball in his hand, Gordon’s father Ed starred at San Diego State (Gordon says he’s not sorry he helped take down his dad’s alma mater and joked that Ed is probably not that sad either), his older brother Drew played for UCLA and professionally overseas and his sister Elisabeth is currently a senior on Harvard’s women’s team.
Haha trust me, I was born a basketball player.
— Aaron Gordon (@1_AG_1) January 22, 2014
His dunks are as electric as the crowd gets after each one, and while it’s a skill from he learned from his dad and brother, it also fuels his competitive desire.
"Dunking is as close as you can get to a 100 percent shot. So when I can get a dunk, it helps me out and it helps my team out," Gordon said. "In the heat of the game I’m just trying to score two points."
He compares himself to Scottie Griffin – a combination of Scottie Pippen and Blake Griffin.
"I love the defensive intensity of Scottie Pippen and his ability to handle the ball and pretty much play the point guard if need be, and I love Blake Griffin’s athleticism and his potential is still unlimited," he said.
Don’t grow too attached to him – although he says he thinks about nothing but winning Saturday’s game, he is expected to go into the NBA next season.
— Arizona Athletics (@AZATHLETICS) March 28, 2014
A college equivalent of the Ole’ Ball Coach, Ryan is a walking history lesson in the game and his point guard Ben Brust said he regales the team regularly with the same rotation of stories.
Those stories often involve his early playing days in the Chester, Pa., Bitty League where basketball is both a way of life and a way out.
"I don’t have a lot of time to give them, so I try to help them with some things financially so that they can help these kids learn not just how to dribble a basketball or shoot a basketball, but also do some things that the Boys & Girls Club, and through the Biddy League learn other life skills and give these young men an opportunity to pull themselves up and out and get a chance to experience a lot of things," Ryan said.
Could listen to Bo Ryan talk basketball all day long. #Badgers
— Matt Hayes (@Matt_HayesSN) March 28, 2014
Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a product of that system, as was Tyreke Evans and Jameer Nelson. Ryan himself was a product as well as his father was a championship-winning Biddy League coach.
"He didn’t coach me. He refused to," Ryan said. "So we ended up playing his team for the championship, and I dropped 42 on him, and he did not talk to me on the drive home. Did not talk to me for three days."
The one trophy missing from Ryan’s case is a Final Four trophy. This is the second Elite Eight he has led the Badgers to but never a Final Four. His father Butch, a longtime Final Four staple, died last August, but he would have been 90 on Saturday.
A Final Four might mean a little more to Ryan this year than any other.
"My dad has won enough championships or he won enough when he was coaching, so excellence to him wasn’t so much the trophy is not the end. It’s all about the experiences that you’re gaining along the way," Ryan said. "Being there, being here to this point, or if we move on, whatever it is, it doesn’t define a person. But, I think, and my mom had passed away seven months before that, I think they realize they did a pretty good job in helping their son and daughter realize what life was all about."
Brust: "He's given us the tools to be successful. Now it's our job to get things done." pic.twitter.com/sr7VocP5PN
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) March 28, 2014
Wisconsin players were asked what they thought Arizona might think about them based on initial impressions. Center Frank Kaminsky was last in the line of questioning. He looked down the line at all of his teammates who used adjectives like "resilient" and "disciplined" and gave a much different answer: "White guys."
His coach was looking for the word athletic, but he just shook his head, clearly used to the persona of his entertaining big man.
But his coach, Ryan, sees a little more. He sees an athletic big that moves with ease and has a high ceiling.
"He kept growing to the point where he had ball handling skills. He had passing skills, pretty good foot work, things like that," Ryan said. "He’s had a chance to be around some guys that could help him. He listens, and like I said, very bright. He’s meant a lot to our program."
He ended the Saturday press conference by comparing his presumably white, suburban hometown to that of his head coach’s.
"Sometimes people call my hometown of Woodridge Hoodridge," he said.
Don’t worry, he rarely elicits the head shaking and eye rolling from his head coach on the court. It’s only off of it.